Part 4: Jesus and Greek
So far in this article I've shown that Jesus spoke Aramaic as his primary language, and that he probably knew Hebrew as well. But what about Greek, the language of the New Testament writings? Is there evidence in the gospels that Jesus was conversant in Greek as well?
Once more I'd like to begin with the circumstantial evidence. Scholars have shown that the region in which Jesus grew up was a multi-cultural and multi-lingual area. Many Greek-speaking Gentiles lived around Nazareth, especially in the large city of Sepphoris that lay within reasonable walking distance from Jesus' hometown. Since Jesus worked as a carpenter prior to beginning his messianic ministry, it's quite likely that he would have interacted with people from Sepphoris, and therefore he may have known at least enough Greek to get by in business.
Several times throughout the New Testament gospels Jesus converses with someone who spoke Greek as a primary language, and who may not have known Aramaic. See, for example, Jesus' dialogue with the Roman centurion in Matthew 8:5-13. Of course it's possible that there was a translator present, and this detail was not included in the gospel story because it added nothing of substance.
Perhaps the most striking example of this sort of dialogue happens during the passion of Jesus as he interacts with Pontius Pilate. All four New Testament gospels record this conversation, with John providing the most extensive account (see John 18). It is unlikely that Jesus knew enough Latin to converse in the official tongue of the Roman empire. And it's equally unlikely that Pontius Pilate knew Aramaic. He was not the sort of gracious governor who would have made the effort to learn the tongue of his subject people, that's for certain. So it's possible that Jesus and Pilate used Greek in order to communicate. Of course it's also possible that they used an interpreter. (Here Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ is probably not historically accurate. I can't remember now whether Jesus and Pilate dialogued in Aramaic or Latin, but I'm quite sure they didn't speak Greek or have an interpreter. Whatever the case, Mel Gibson can be forgiven for such an oversight. We're dealing with probabilities at this point, anyway.)
At most we can conclude that it's likely Jesus knew at least some Greek. But even if his knowledge of this language was minimal, this fact still helps us understand Jesus more completely. For many years it was common to envision Jesus as growing up in the countryside of Galilee, far removed from multi-cultural hodge-podge of the Roman Empire. But this idealized view of Jesus is far from the truth. Though he grew up in a small town, he was not at all cut off from the broader Roman world. In fact Jesus grew up with ample exposure to Greco-Roman language, culture, commerce, politics, religion, and philosophy. When he eventually entered Jerusalem to confront the Roman and Jewish authorities there - and to give his life in the process - Jesus was no naïve country bumpkin making his first trip to the big city. Rather he was well aware of powers and perils he faced, and he faced these knowing, as he ultimately said to Pontius Pilate (in Greek?), "My kingdom is not from this world" (John 18:36).